Palestinian prisoners have been on a hunger strike for about a month — an event that has out-lasted the latest round of Israeli-Palestinian talks but has received far less attention.
RAMALLAH, occupied West Bank — Since Israel imprisoned her husband last fall, Muntaha al-Tawil, also known as Umm Abdullah, has not been allowed to see or communicate with him.
As the prospect of reviving U.S.-sponsored negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian Authority becomes less likely, Palestinian prisoners have become a focal issue.
Um Abdullah’s husband, Jamal al-Tawil, 51, is one of around 125 prisoners who have been refusing food for nearly four weeks. At least 90 of these prisoners are held under administrative detention, a draconian practice in which Israel imprisons Palestinians without charges and on “secret evidence.”
“It has been very difficult for both me and the children,” Umm Abdullah told MintPress News, adding that she has been banned from visiting prisoners for “security reasons” since 2002. Her husband is a prominent politician and a senior official in Hamas, an Islamist Palestinian political party banned by Israel but democratically elected by the Palestinians.
The administrative detainees began their strike on April 24, and werejoined by another 5,000 prisoners who declared a one-day solidarity strike on May 8.
According to Addameer, a group that monitors Israel’s arrest and detention of Palestinians,there were 5,265 Palestinians behind bars as of April 1.
On May 12, dozens of women — mothers, wives and sisters of hunger strikers — called for international action anddelivered petitions to the United Nations and the International Committee for the Red Cross in the central West Bank city of Al-Bireh.
“The administrative detainees’ situation has reached a critical point, and alongside them, we are calling for immediate action to end the harrowing policy of administrative detention forever,”the petition addressed to U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon stated.
The petition added that research conducted by the human rights group Amnesty International suggests Israel uses administrative detention “as a form of political arrest, which allows the authorities to detain political prisoners, including prisoners of conscience, who are arbitrarily arrested and punished for their beliefs, or on suspicion of political affiliation but without having committing any crime.”
A2012 Amnesty International press release noted that although administrative detention is legal, detainees still have “rights to a fair trial as guaranteed by Article 14 of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR) are consistently violated.”
Umm Abdullah, one of the signatories to the petition, explained that the women behind the petitions do not have much hope the international community will step in.
“We don’t believe that the U.N. will do anything, but the families of prisoners are desperate and have to knock on every possible door,” she said. “The main reason we submitted the letter is because Israel’s excessive use of administrative detention is illegal under international law.”
Her husband, Al-Tawil, was most recently arrested on Oct. 31. He has since been held as an administrative detainee in several military prisons across Israel and the occupied Palestinian territories.
With the exception of Fatah, the ruling political party in the West Bank, Israel has banned all major Palestinian political parties, including Hamas. Additionally, the Fatah-dominated Palestinian Authority has cracked down on Hamas and other Islamist parties since 2006, when the Palestinian Authority ousted Hamas after it dominated Palestinian parliamentary elections.
As a senior Hamas official, al-Tawil has been particularly active in the push against Palestinian-Israeli negotiations that aim to establish a two-state solution. The Palestinian Authority removed him from his post after he was elected mayor of Al-Bireh.
“The Palestinian Authority is implicated in his arrest,” Umm Abdullah said. “They have security cooperation with Israel.”
Estimating that her husband has been arrested more than 15 times since 1989, Umm Abdullah explains that her four children “have grown up watching their father go to and from Israel’s prisons. It has been very difficult because ever since my kids were very young Jamal has spent around 10 years in jail.”
Al-Tawil has spent the last decade alternating between serving time in prisons operated by the Palestinian Authority and being in Israeli detention.
Because Israel has not allowed the couple to communicate since al-Tawil’s most recent arrest last fall, Umm Abdullah has only been able to speak to her husband through his lawyer. “On May 1, [his lawyer] said he had lost a lot of weight but is in good spirits.”
The children’s visitation requests have also been repeatedly denied by Israeli authorities.
Umm Abdullah stressed that her husband has been involved in several hunger strikes. When asked how long she thought he will be able to continue refusing food, she replied, “I know that he can go [on hunger strike] for a long time because he had already been on a hunger strike for 35 days in 1998… that time he lost 13 kilograms.”
Both Umm Abdullah and her daughter have also spent time in Israeli lockup for their Hamas-affiliated political activism. “The conditions are simply awful,” she said. “It is very difficult inside [the jails].”
Israeli, Palestinian and international human rights organizations also regularly denounce Israel Prison Service’s poor treatment of Palestinian political prisoners, who are frequently denied family visits and adequate medical treatment, and are subjected to physical abuse.
According to theIsraeli human rights group B’Tselem, Israeli interrogators routinely attempt to obtain information from prisoners by exposing them to sleep deprivation, psychological pressure and isolation, among other techniques.
Punitive measures for Palestinian prisoners
The strikers’ demands date back to May 2012, when Israeli authorities struck an agreement with prisoners to end a mass hunger strike that peaked at around 2,000 persons refusing food for two weeks.
In exchange for the prisoners ceasing their strike, Israel agreed to honor several demands, including to only use administrative detention in exceptional circumstances. Other demands were related to health care, education and family visits.
Gavan Kelly, a spokesperson for Addameer, explained that Israel has “reneged on almost all of the conditions of that agreement.”
“The only condition that they have honored was to allow families of prisoners from Gaza to visit,” Kelly told MintPress. “But even that hasn’t been totally honored. Like West Bank prisoners, Gazans should be allowed to receive visiting relatives every two weeks… right now they are getting visits every two months or so.”
The demands of the present hunger strike are related solely to administrative detention, which is forbidden under international law when used excessively and for political purposes.
“Though the number of administrative detainees went down for a brief period after the May 2012 agreement, it yet again increased,” Kelly added. “And now Israel Prison Service is attempting to break hunger strikers by using punitive measures.”
Among those measures is the banning of family visits for periods between four and six months. Others have been denied access to lawyers, including those who are clients of the legal staff from Addameer.
“For the first 15 days of the strike, [Israel Prison Service] didn’t allow the prisoners to have salt, which is vital for their health while on hunger strike,” Kelly explained.
Others have been subjected to daily raids, searches and physical violence, and some have been denied medicine. In response, prisoners have announced a boycott of Israel’s prison clinics.
“Unless there is pressure on the Israelis by the international community to make Israel agree to the strikers’ demands, we will see serious consequences for the prisoners,” Kelly commented.
Umm Abdullah also called on the world to act in solidarity with the prisoners.
“Even though Palestinians suffer from many problems, the prisoners’ cause is the most important,” she concluded. “We have checkpoints and settlements, but the most important thing is the human soul. Without the prisoners’ struggle there is nothing.”